Everybody dies, but not everybody lives.
"You apparently have a death wish," my mother said to me after I booked a shark cage diving excursion in South Africa. "You've seen Jaws. We all know how that ended."
I immediately pointed out that despite Jaws ripping his way through the cage, Hooper, the character who had been in the cage, survived. This, of course, was countered with how Quint died: he was swallowed up whole by Jaws. I reminded her that Quint was not in the cage.
"If that happens to be my fate, at least I can say I went out with my boots on," I said.
"You won't be wearing any boots in the cage," replied my mother.
Just a week before, after I booked a safari in which you camp out underneath the stars of the African sky for six days, surrounded by armed guards in case a lion or two shows up for a feast on human flesh, my mother and I had similar exchange.
I had a death wish, according to her. According to me, I'd die with my boots on — and that's how I plan to go.
Although the idiom to "die with your boots on" dates back to the 19th-century American West, a time when soldiers and cowboys literally "died with their boots" on in battle, today the phrase can be used to describe someone who lives right up to the end and dies in some sort of action.
Death by lion or shark would definitely mean dying with my boots on. Death in the midst of living my life, on my terms, by my definition of what it means to live and not merely exist, also fits the bill.
But contrary to what my mother thinks, I do not have a death wish. I don't actively think about ways to put my life at risk. In fact, I don't think a safari or cage diving with sharks is even remotely risky; I take more of a risk every time I get in a car.
But if I did happen to die on one of these excursions, then that's cool with me. I'd rather die in the middle of some great adventure than at 90 years of age, collecting dust in an old age home.
Or, as my 98-year-old grandmother did the last few years of life, lie in bed, clueless and lost, unaware of even the beat of her own heart, the one that refused to cease, despite her moments of lucidity in which she wept because death seemed to be ignoring her. I do not want to have to wait for death. Nor do I want to stop for it.
I'm not afraid to die. At all. I realize that some religious people feel the same because of a deep belief in Heaven or some sort of afterlife, but not me. I don't believe in Heaven or Hell. I don't believe in a God who's going to decide at the pearly gates whether or not I get to kick it with him for all eternity or be cast down to Hell with the heathens. Even if I did, I'd opt for the heathens any day of the week.
I have an innate fearlessness in me, at least when it comes to my own life. While I can admit that I might fear the fear that would come with my final moments, it passes. "To die," as J.M. Barrie wrote in Peter Pan, "Will be an awfully big adventure." I don't think one can argue that. But as Barrie also wrote, "To live will be an awfully big adventure," too.
We can't predict how we will leave this world. But since death is inevitable and none of us are getting out of this alive, we can hope for how we go. There are those who hope they pass in their sleep, those who think dying in the throes of sex, mid-orgasm, would be ideal, and of course those, like my mother, whose fear of death is so rampant in her blood that she has decided she won't be dying at all.
But for me, if I have it my way, I'd like to die while I'm living. Not just breathing and existing, but living; being lost in a foreign country, on my way to a land that's yet to be fully explored, or even in the mouth of a lion.
"The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware," wrote Henry Miller, and I'm aware and I'm living. So if I died while traveling, I'd be perfectly happy with that. Because, as I've promised myself, I will be going out with my boots on — joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware that I lived my life for me and me alone ... and had one hell of an adventure in the process.